The High Court in London has ruled that Prime Minister Theresa May must seek approval from Parliament to trigger the process of taking Britain out of the European Union.
The judgement represents a major win for campaigners – including a Gibraltarian man – who launched a legal battle against Mrs May’s decision to use the royal prerogative in her Brexit strategy.
The decision dictates that it must be MPs and not the Government that triggers Article 50, upsetting Mrs May’s Brexit plans.
Within minutes of the ruling by Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, International Development Secretary Liam Fox told the House of Commons that the Government will appeal the matter.
That appeal is to be ‘leapfrogged’ direct to the Supreme Court to be heard on December 7 and 8.
Unless overturned on appeal at the Supreme Court – or at a potential further appeal to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg – the ruling threatens to plunge the British Government’s plans for Brexit into disarray as the process will have to be subject to full parliamentary control.
Among the interested parties in the case was 50-year Gibraltarian Paul Cartwright, who became involved in a crowdfunded legal action after campaigning heavily to remain in the EU.
A delighted Mr Cartwright, who had travelled to the UK last month in order to attend the court sessions, told the Chronicle that he had anticipated the result – at least in part.
He pointed to the last day of the October hearing and the “weak” closing submissions put forward by the British Government’s lawyers.
In a nod to the appeal next month, Mr Cartwright also called on his fellow Gibraltarians to rally behind the cause.
He and his fellow campaigners will be stepping up their lobbying efforts in the meantime and Mr Cartwright said he hopes he can garner support from other local residents.
Government lawyers had argued that prerogative powers were a legitimate way to give effect “to the will of the people” who voted by a clear majority to leave the European Union in the June referendum.
But Lord Chief Justice John Thomas, England’s most senior judge, said: “The Government does not have power under the Crown’s prerogative to give notice pursuant to Article 50 for the UK to withdraw from the European Union.”
The Lord Chief Justice – sitting with the Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, and Lord Justice Sales – emphasised to a packed court that he was deciding “a pure question of law”.
He added: “The court is not concerned with and does not express any view about the merits of leaving the European Union: that is a political issue.”
Lord Thomas did not spell out what action the government needed to take. The judges also did not say whether it would need to pass a new law to trigger the Brexit proceedings, which could face opposition and amendments from both houses of parliament, particularly the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber.
Brexit Secretary David Davis, who defended the Government’s case in court, said ministers would be forced to produce a full Act of Parliament in order to trigger Article 50 unless the High Court ruling is overturned.
MPs have suggested that Mrs May could call a snap general election next year to ensure she has enough supportive MPs to get her Brexit plan through the House of Commons.
Mrs May’s spokeswoman said it was still the Government’s plan to invoke Article 50 by the end of March.
“We have no intention of letting this derail our timetable,” she said.
The Prime Minister will, at her request, discuss the Brexit process with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker today, Mr Juncker’s spokesman told reporters in Brussels.
The spokesman said all the other members of the EU would like to see a “swift” notification of Article 50 to begin the Brexit process.
In theory, parliament could block Brexit altogether. But few people expect that outcome, given that the British people voted by 52 to 48 percent to leave the EU in a referendum in June.
In a statement, the Gibraltar Government said it “noted” the decision of the High Court.
No. 6 Convent Place said it will continue to work closely and in full involvement with the Government of the United Kingdom in calibrating how best to protect Gibraltar’s diverse interests in preparation for the negotiation that will lead to the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.
The GSD, meanwhile, said it “cautiously welcomed” the ruling.
Trevor Hammond, Spokesman for European Affairs said: “This ruling is still subject to appeal and does not mean that the UK will not lodge an Article 50 notice.”
He added: “It might delay it and, therefore, give Gibraltar more time to continue lobbying and to prepare. That in itself is an important consequence of this case.”
The Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party has also congratulated the claimants in the case.
The decision is an important one in which a Gibraltar litigant joined UK litigants to challenge the UK government and have won, the GSLP said in a statement.